Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship is a must-read for Christians and others who perceive the sterility of the fundamentalism-relativism debate over the possibility of religious truth, but don’t know where to turn for a third option.
Newbigin (1909-1998) was an internationally renowned British missionary, pastor, and scholar. He began as a village evangelist in India, and eventually held such positions as bishop of the Church of South India and associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Because he spent so many years sharing the gospel in cultures that were unencumbered by Western philosophical baggage, Newbigin was in a privileged position to perceive our contemporary post-Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge and certainty as merely one ideology among many, open to challenge. He belonged to that rare breed of theologians who not only had genuinely original ideas, but expressed them with clarity and verve.
Proper Confidence is a slim volume (105 pages) that expresses more concisely the ideas in Newbigin’s best-selling The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Though at times repetitive and dense, this latter book is also a treasure that belongs on every Christian apologist’s bookshelf.
Newbigin sees a fundamental divide running through Western thought from the Greco-Roman period to the present day. Is ultimate reality impersonal, such that we must maintain a detached perspective in order to know the truth, or is it personal, requiring us to risk involvement in the story that God is telling? There is no neutral perspective from which one can prove the superiority of either option. Rather, which option we choose will itself determine our standards of proof in religious matters.
The gospel shocked the Greco-Roman world because it merged two realms that classical thought had kept separate. Truth was identified with universal, timeless principles. The logos, like the dharma in Eastern thought, “referred to the ultimate impersonal entity which was at the heart of all coherence in the cosmos.” (p.4) How could the logos be identified with something as radically contingent as the life and death of a particular man, Jesus, in human history?
At this point, says Newbigin, the hearer has only two choices. Retain the classical worldview, which has also become the post-Enlightenment worldview, with all its dualisms (fact/value, objective/subjective, reason/faith). Or “listen to those who tell the story, and perhaps (indeed above all)…witness the cruel death of those who would rather face the lions in the circus than disavow this belief. If that course is pursued, then the very meaning of the word logos and the whole edifice of thought of which it is the keystone have to be taken down and rebuilt on this new foundation, this new arche. The language of Scripture, the evangelist announces, will be either the cornerstone or the stone of stumbling; it cannot be merely one of the building blocks in the whole structure of thought.” (p.5)
If we believe that reliable knowledge is best obtained through logical discovery of universal facts — an epistemology that puts us totally in control — then it would be absurd to take up this invitation. However, if we’re open to the idea that knowledge depends on an act of trust, then confidence in the gospel witnesses may lead us to confidence in God.
What is obvious and important at this stage is that the acceptance of the biblical tradition as a starting point for thought constituted a radical break with the classical tradition, whether in its Platonic or Aristotelian form. To put it crudely, in the latter form we begin by asking questions, and we formulate these questions on the basis of our experience of the world. In this enterprise we are in control of operations. We decide which questions to ask, and these decisions necessarily condition the nature of the answers. This is the procedure with which we are familiar in the work of the natural sciences. The things we desire to understand are not active players in the game of learning; they are inert and must submit to our questioning. The resulting “knowledge” is our achievement and our possession.
But there is another kind of knowing which, in many languages, is designated by a different word. It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure in which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also the gift of others. And even in the mutual relations of ordinary human beings, it is never complete. There are always further depths of knowledge that only long friendship and mutual trust can reach, if indeed they can be reached at all.
There is a radical break between these two kinds of knowing: the knowing often associated with the natural sciences and the knowing involved in personal relations. We experience this radical break, for example, when someone about whom we have been talking unexpectedly comes into the room. We can discuss an absent person in a manner that leaves us in full control of the discussion. But if the person comes into the room, we must either break off the discussion or change into a different mode of talking.
This is a proper analogy of the break involved in the move from the classical to the Christian way of understanding the world. If, so to say, the Idea of the Good has actually entered the room and spoken, we have to stop our former discussion and listen. (pp.10-11)
How does this choice between two philosophies affect us today? Newbigin sees both liberals and fundamentalists as mistakenly clinging to concepts of proof and certainty that belong to the “impersonal” worldview. The former throw out all the aspects of the Christian story that can’t be reconciled with modern science or proven according to the ideal of mathematics, that is, without reference to the personal commitments or situation of the thinker. Their fundamentalist opponents tacitly concede this notion of truth, but tie themselves in knots trying to show that the Bible and Christian doctrine measure up to these standards.
In three chapters titled “Faith as the Way to Knowledge,” “Doubt as the Way to Certainty,” and “Certainty as the Way to Nihilism,” Newbigin surveys how Western theology and philosophy slipped away from the incarnational, personal approach to knowledge embodied in the gospel, and how the quest for certainty failed.
In the 13th century, reacting to the influence of Muslim rationalist philosophers like Averroes, St. Thomas Aquinas introduced a fateful two-tier scheme of truths that could be known by reason alone, and truths that required special revelation from God. It was inevitable, as scientific discoveries in the so-called secular realm progressed, that the truths of faith would come to occupy second-class status as private sentiments. Moreover, if there were a truth-seeking method that functioned apart from God, why would we need another method? “If philosophy has to be called in to underpin that knowledge of God which (it is claimed) comes by revelation; if, in other words, the religious experience of those apprenticed to the tradition which has its foundation in the biblical narrative is not itself a sufficient ground for certainty, so that other, more reliable grounds are to be sought; it follows that those other grounds must be completely reliable….But they are not.” (p.19) Science and philosophy constantly overturned old proofs with new arguments and evidence, leading 17th-century Europe into a crisis of skepticism.
In this climate, Descartes proposed to establish religious certainty on a foundation of radical doubt, reversing St. Augustine’s dictum that “I believe in order to understand.” That statement offends us today because Augustine seems to be begging the question. How can he find truth if he’s already chosen the conclusion he wants to reach? Heirs of the Cartesian worldview, we assume that the thinking subject is the only active participant, and everything else is just data. But really, how could we expect an impersonal method to give us knowledge of the God of the Bible, who is a supremely personal God? The God of the philosophers, by definition, can’t walk into the room and tell us something we couldn’t have figured out for ourselves. Newbigin’s insight is that the Cartesian epistemology, no less than the Augustinian, predetermines the types of answers that will be considered legitimate.
In retrospect, it wasn’t inevitable that Descartes chose abstract thought as the bedrock of our knowledge of reality. He could have said “I love, therefore I am” or “I act, therefore I am”. “By isolating the thinking mind as though it existed apart from its embodiment in a whole person and thus apart from the whole human and cosmic history to which that person belongs, Descartes opened up a huge gap between the world of thought and the world of material things and historical happenings.” (p.22) This mind-body dualism, long rejected by science, persists today in popular thought about religion and ethics, from the liberal church’s scorning theology in favor of political and charitable work, to John Rawls’ attempt to define a just society based on procedural values alone (the famous “veil of ignorance“).
By making doubt seem morally and philosophically superior to faith, Newbigin argues, Enlightenment thought ultimately led us into an impasse where no knowledge seems reliable:
The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd. Both faith and doubt are necessary elements in this adventure. One does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relation between the two cannot be reversed. Knowing always begins with the opening of our minds and our senses to the great reality which is around us and which sustains us, and it always depends on this from beginning to end. (p.25)It was left to Nietzsche to pull the thread that unraveled the Enlightenment’s sweater. Rational criticism rests on beliefs which themselves are open to criticism by the same method. The “eternal truths of reason” depend on uncriticized axioms which are the product of particular historical and personal developments. If truth is defined as that which cannot be logically deconstructed, there is no truth, just competing expressions of the will to power. Hence the postmodern skepticism and emotionalism in which we now find ourselves.
The Christian epistemology sketched by Newbigin perfectly matches the Christian understanding of sin, grace and human nature. That is why conservative Christians who claim to possess Enlightenment-style infallibility about religious doctrine are also misguided.
If we are to use the word “certainty” here, then it is not the certainty of Descartes. It is the kind of certainty expressed in such words as those of the Scriptures: “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). Note here two features of this kind of assurance which distinguish it from the ideal of certainty we have inherited from the Age of Reason. In the first place, the locus of confidence (if one may put it so) is not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known….Secondly, the phrase “until that day” reminds us that this is not a claim to possess final truth but to be on the way that leads to the fullness of truth….(p.67)
When we speak of God’s self-revelation, we are certainly speaking of more than information and even invitation: we are speaking of reconciliation, of atonement, and of salvation. Our discussion so far has assumed that we are, so to speak, competent to undertake the search for truth — this has been the unquestioned assumption of modernity….The call, so often heard in ringing tones, to “follow truth at all costs,” assumes that we are so made that we know what it is that we are seeking and that we shall recognize it when we find it. Here we have to come to that part of the whole Christian tradition against which the Age of Reason most strenuously took up arms. At the heart of the story of the ministry of Jesus as interpreted by the Fourth Evangelist, there occurs an encounter between Jesus and those of his hearers who had believed in him. It is reported that he said, “If you continue in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31). Here we seem to have a direct reversal of one of the axioms of modernity, namely, that freedom of inquiry, freedom to think and speak and publish, is the way — the only way — to the truth. Jesus appears to reverse this. Truth is not a fruit of freedom; it is the precondition for freedom. It is not surprising that it was these words of Jesus which (according to the Fourth Gospel) precipitated an attempt to kill him….
We are not honest inquirers seeking the truth. We are alienated from truth and are enemies of it. We are by nature idolaters, constructing images of truth shaped by our own desires. This was demonstrated once and for all when Truth became incarnate, present to us in the actual being and life of the man Jesus, and when our response to this truth incarnate, a response including all the representatives of the best of human culture at that time and place, was to seek to destroy it. (pp.68-69)
Newbigin’s insight helps explain why the liberal churches have been so eager to water down the doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, and original sin. For all the political self-flagellation that goes on in liberal sermons about the ethics of Jesus, our central idol — our own moral competence — remains intact. Virtue is within our reach as long as we make more material sacrifices. The modernist worldview attacks the gospel miracles, ostensibly to defend the obvious benefits of science and free inquiry, but really because facing the radical corruption of human nature is intolerable unless we place an equally radical confidence in God’s grace.
The conflict between the Bible and the Enlightenment is only secondarily about Darwin versus Genesis and all the other issues in the “culture wars”. It is about truth-as-propositions versus truth-as-story. At the beginning of the modern era, we decided that universal principles discovered by reason were more reliable than the particular historical narrative which the Bible records and which it calls us to continue. Now that those principles no longer look so universal, we doubt the possibility of all knowledge. The church’s task is not to justify the Bible story according to modernist principles, but to make our lives witnesses to Christian truth in action.
The business of the church is to tell and to embody a story, the story of God’s mighty acts in creation and redemption and of God’s promises concerning what will be in the end. The church affirms the truth of this story by celebrating it, interpreting it, and enacting it in the life of the contemporary world. It has no other way of affirming its truth. If it supposes that its truth can be authenticated by reference to some allegedly more reliable truth claim, such as those offered by the philosophy of religion, then it has implicitly denied the truth by which it lives. In this sense, the church shares the postmodernists’ replacement of eternal truths with a story. But there is a profound difference between the two. For the postmodernists, there are many stories, but no overarching truth by which they can be assessed. They are simply stories. The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies, and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it. (p.76)
Newbigin calls on fundamentalists to abandon their fear of error, their reification of the Bible as a set of objective “facts” whose authority stands or falls together.
At every point in the story of the transmission of biblical material from the original text to today we are dealing with the interaction of men and women with God. At every point, human judgment and human fallibility are involved, as they are involved in every attempt we make today to act faithfully in new situations. The idea that at a certain point in this long story a line was drawn before which everything is divine word and after which everything is human judgment is absurd…. (p.86)
The manner in which Jesus makes the Father known is not in infallible, unrevisable, irreformable statements. He did not write a book which would have served forever as the unquestionable and irreformable statement of the truth about God. He formed a community of friends and shared his life with them. He left it to them it be his witnesses, and — as we know — their witness has come to us in varied forms; we know about very few of the words and deeds of Jesus with the kind of certainty Descartes identified with reliable knowledge. To wish that it were otherwise is to depart from the manner in which God has chosen to make himself known. The doctrine of verbal inerrancy is a direct denial of the way in which God has chosen to make himself known to us as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.89)
Whether one accepts or rejects the gospel, then, the quest for truth is never without personal risk. Both liberals and fundamentalists have tried and failed to establish perspective-independent knowledge. If anyone has such knowledge, it would be God alone. Ultimately, the search for truth depends on trust that ultimate reality wants to be known by us. The story of God’s self-giving love in Christ is the best story we’ve found to base that trust upon.